The ‘Smallest Military in Decades’ Lie


With the Pentagon facing cuts to a tiny portion of its budget, the right wing is in full freakout mode and they’re lying to support the claim that we need to spend more, not less, on weapons. PolitiFact takes Mitt Romney to task for the standard lie we’re hearing these days, that “our Navy is smaller than it’s been since 1917. Our Air Force is smaller and older than any time since 1947.”

After noting that this is only measuring total numbers of ships or planes, not capability or technology, the site explains in great detail why this is an utterly dishonest argument:

But what do those numbers mean? Not much, a variety of experts told us.

Counting the number of ships or aircraft is not a good measurement of defense strength because their capabilities have increased dramatically in recent decades. Romney’s comparison “doesn’t pass ‘the giggle test,’ ” said William W. Stueck, a historian at the University of Georgia.

Consider what types of naval ships were used in 1916 and 2011. The types of ships active in both years, such as cruisers and destroyers, are outfitted today with far more advanced technology than what was available during World War I. More importantly, the U.S. Navy has 11 aircraft carriers (plus the jets to launch from them), 31 amphibious ships, 14 submarines capable of launching nuclear ballistic missiles and four submarines capable of launching Cruise missiles — all categories of vessels that didn’t exist in 1916.

As for the Air Force, many U.S. planes may be old, but they “have been modernized with amazing sensors and munitions even when the airframes themselves haven’t been,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. Human factors matter, too. “The vast superiority of the U.S. Air Force has little to do with number of planes, but with vastly superior training, in-flight coordination and control, as well as precision targeting and superior missiles,” said Charles Knight, co-director of the Project on Defense Alternatives at the Massachusetts-based Commonwealth Institute.

Ruehrmund and Bowie write in their report that “although the overall force level is lower, the capabilities of the current force in almost all respects far exceed that of the huge Air Force of the 1950s. Today’s Air Force can maintain surveillance of the planet with space and air-breathing systems; strike with precision any point on the globe within hours; deploy air power and joint forces with unprecedented speed and agility; and provide high-bandwidth secure communications and navigation assistance to the entire joint force.”

Increasingly crucial today are pilotless aerial vehicles, some of which are more commonly known as drones.

“The Air Force now buys more unmanned than manned aircraft every year, and that trend is not going to change,” said Lance Janda, a historian at Cameron University. “Within our lifetime, I think you’ll see an end to manned combat aircraft, because unmanned planes are more capable and a lot cheaper.”

For a sense of comparison, in 1947, “it took dozens of planes and literally hundreds of bombs to destroy a single target because they were so inaccurate,” said Todd Harrison, a fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “But thanks to smart bombs and stealthy aircraft, today it only takes a single plane and often a single bomb to destroy a target.”

Or as John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org, puts it: “Would anyone care to trade today’s Navy or Air Force for either service at any point in the 20th century?”

This is pure demagoguery, designed to make the ignorant masses fear something that need not be feared. And even if all the proposed defense cuts actually take place, which is unlikely given our absurd political culture, it would reduce the amount of defense spending in this country from about 47% of all military spending on the planet to maybe 45%. Oh, I’m so terrified!

Comments

  1. peterh says

    One reason for the “older than in 1947″ is the draft age – remember the draft? – had been recently lowered to 18 and many WW II conscripts were still in uniform.

  2. says

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_military_expenditures#SIPRI_Military_Expenditure_Database

    That graph to the right is the most disgusting thing in this entire argument. We could cut half our military budget and still spend more than China does, hell, we could cut it by three quarters and still spend more. We’re 10th in the list of spending as percentage of GDP. We spend more money on our military budget than the next 20 countries on the list COMBINED.

    But oh no we can’t drop it by a few billion dollars cause there’s so many other threats out there.

  3. dingojack says

    Clearly, you should stop aborting 1 trimester foetuses and enlist them.
    That’ll lower the average age of your military conscripts!
    @@
    Dingo

  4. says

    The stupid thing about counting navy vessels is that it completely obscures the huge asymmetry in naval technology that currently exists, which is probably greater than at any time in history. I’m pretty sure that a fully armed Sea Wolf class sub would quickly wipe-out any surface task force it came across, probably without the surface ships even knowing it was there. The only navy with the ability to detect it, let alone successfully engage it, would be our own and possibly that of Britain or France. An even greater asymmetry exists with carriers. Russia currently has no carriers in service and no shipyards to build any. China has one, an obsolete Soviet model that they converted from a floating museum. It wouldn’t last 10 seconds in battle.

    In case of a shooting war between us and any conceivable enemy, we would have absolute naval supremacy and our ships would be under virtually no threat from other naval forces. (Land-based missiles would be the only threat.) This situation did not exist in 1917 or 1947, and there is currently no prospect of the situation changing.

  5. lofgren says

    This is unfair because you are taking Romney out of context. When he says “smallest navy since 1917,” he’s referring to the U.S.S. Curmudgeon, a warship manned entirely by genetically engineered dwarfs with webbed toes and cartilaginous skeletons. At 3’3″ each, they drag down the Navy’s average height to a mere 5’2″, which is the smallest navy since the U.S.S. Phineous, once the most advanced vessel in modern dwarf warfare, was decommissioned in 1917.

  6. says

    “One reason for the “older than in 1947″ is the draft age – remember the draft?”

    I was under the impression that they meant the age of the planes, not the age of the servicemen. Which is another meaningless metric. Our ability to project air supremacy is at least as good as our naval supremacy. Our F-16s are enough to achieve air superiority over any potential enemy, never mind the F-22 and F-35.

  7. lofgren says

    Of course the real reason it size is misleading is that everybody knows that girth is far more important than length.

  8. laurentweppe says

    That graph to the right is the most disgusting thing in this entire argument. We could cut half our military budget and still spend more than China does, hell, we could cut it by three quarters and still spend more

    But but but but but: What if Europe decided to invade? You never know: fundie get elected president, european secularits freak out and decide to wipe out Dixie before things get out of hand: It’s a scenario at least as likely as China trying to invade and colonize America or Iran starting to nuke countries for the lulz, therefore such a risk has to be mitigated

  9. bahrfeldt says

    Sort of reminds me of the Republican lie that they reduced the size of the IRS. They transferred payroll to the Department of Agriculture, reduced the size of the Appeals offices, transferred the Internal Audit Division directly under the Secretary of the Treasury, privatized the mailrooms and laid off a large part of the clerical and taxpayer assistant staffs in the name of computerization. To more than make up for it they hired more agents, auditors, tax collectors and (of course) supervisors.

  10. frog says

    But what will we do when the aliens invade?!?! If the USA has the most advanced military on Earth, we’re going to the only line of defense when the bug-eyed monsters come to enslave us and steal Earth’s natural resources!

    Thank goodness our president bears a slight resemblance to Will Smith. Now if we could only get a vice president who looks a bit like Jeff Goldblum, we’d be set.

  11. erk12 says

    The air force isn’t as new as 1947, just after the invention of jet fighters? Imagine that. The planes in use in 1939 were obsolete by the early 40’s and those were obsolete by 1947, they HAD to be newer then; war against evenly-matched opponents (more or less) breeds innovation in military technology.

  12. Draken says

    Did you notice, on that wikipedia page, the scandalous percentage of 11% of GDP that Saudi-Arabia spends to belong to the big boys? Our allies’ budget is more than 6 times that of Iran.

  13. says

    I’ve got a mental image of some toothless old man complaining about how we don’t do things the way he did. Insert a whistle with every ‘s’ sound:

    “In mah day, sonny, we didn’t need no PGS to tell us bombers where our target was! We just landed the forty or fifty flying fortresses at a nearby gas station and ask for directions, but only if Bubba couldn’t get the roadmap right side up. And once we got there, we just dumped a few thousand bombs in the general vicinity and called it good, ‘cuz one of them had to have hit. Nowadays, they just hand the job off to some uppity young hotshot with a college degree and a bleedin’ heart that’s worried about accidentally napalming those goddamn Communist babies, and pinching pennies by counting the number of bombs. If those goddamn Communist babies didn’t want to be blowed up, they woulda had the sense to be born American!”

  14. dingojack says

    Erk12 – “The air force isn’t as new as 1947, just after the invention of jet fighters?”

    Just after the invention of jet fighters?!?

    Dingo

  15. D. C. Sessions says

    Sent too soon …
    Instead I suspect that they won’t be happy until we have 10,000 B2s and enough subs to use up every name the Navy gave to the WWII Fleet boats.

  16. Aquaria says

    Just after the invention of jet fighters?!?

    As compared to the prop jobs, Dingo. I guess they had to get a new name for the excuse to prop up a bloated military industrial complex, so jets it was!

  17. says

    The AF may be smaller, stealthier and deadlier than it was when I served–but can today’s airman pound down the beerskis like me and my comrades? I think not.

    I got holt to a recently declassified doqument that lays out in simple english what I knowed for years. My mission, while serving in USAFE, in the heart of We(s)t Germany WAS to get faced as often as humanly possible. Me and a few of my barracksmates multihandedly depleted the stocks of several breweries. Ask not what your country can drink for you, but what you can drink for your country!

  18. kermit. says

    One thing (among several) that strikes me about the fanatical right is the fear they constantly express – fear of the nameless enemies, fear of the Commies and terr’ists, fear of the president from Kenya, fear of the gay, fear of strong women, and an overarching sense that not only was someone, somewhere, having fun, but that he was out to get the righteous afterward.

    But the powers behind the closed doors know that we don’t need the military we have in order to be safe. We need it to channel tax dollars into the hands of the arms merchants, and we need it to “protect our interests abroad”(1).

    (1) Latin phrase translating to “steal oil from folks who won’t give it to us for cheap”.

  19. zmidponk says

    lofgren #7:

    Of course the real reason it size is misleading is that everybody knows that girth is far more important than length.

    Actually, I think that the objections to Romney’s arguments can be summarised by simply pointing out that it’s not the size that matters, it’s what you can do with it that counts.

  20. says

    Actually, I think that the objections to Romney’s arguments can be summarised by simply pointing out that it’s not the size that matters, it’s what you can do with it that counts.

    I cannot declare a winner to a thread, but….

    Another way of looking at it is that,l considering what we’re spending, are we getting what we’re paying for? Because with the $$ we’re paying for, the quantity has to either be very small, or very high..

  21. Ichthyic says

    But oh no we can’t drop it by a few billion dollars cause there’s so many other threats out there [that we keep manufacturing].

    FTFY.

  22. Ichthyic says

    Me and a few of my barracksmates multihandedly depleted the stocks of several breweries.

    beer is indeed still cheaper than guns.

    I vote that any proposed increase in the defense budge be directed towards the next raid of the Food King.

    all in favor?

  23. paul says

    We spend more money on our military budget than the next 20 countries on the list COMBINED.

    To be fair, spending a lot of money does equate to winning. An expensive, high technology force can be humiliated by a cheap, poorly equipped one. But the solution to that problem is to never get involved in a land war in Asia.

  24. Scott Hanley says

    If we scrapped two patrol boats and built the Death Star, Romney would say Obama was shrinking the military.

  25. laurentweppe says

    My mission, while serving in USAFE, in the heart of We(s)t Germany WAS to get faced as often as humanly possible

    And thanks to you diligent drinking, Germany is the last place in Europe when we can fin good beer at a reasonable price, so allow me to salute you.

    ***

    If we scrapped two patrol boats and built the Death Star, Romney would say Obama was shrinking the military.

    And what happened to Palpatine? He ended up overthrown by a communist muslim hippie raised in a desert like Bin Laden.

  26. mobius says

    I think that a more telling metric used to measure our military forces is to compare the size of our military to that of other countries. In that case, our Navy is far larger than any other on the planet. Our Air Force, too, is of exceptional size.

    Add to this the technological edge we have in most areas, and the claim our military is undersized is ridiculous.

  27. says

    This is pure demagoguery, designed to make the ignorant masses fear something that need not be feared.

    You apparently don’t realize it was a member of the Obama administration — Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta — who said it first.

    Are you accusing Panetta of being in the “right wing” and “full freakout mode?”

  28. emc2 says

    Most likely the reason for the 1947 date is that is the ‘birth’ of the USAF as a separate service. It was part of the Army before that.

  29. Ichthyic says

    He ended up overthrown by a communist muslim hippie raised in a desert like Bin Laden.

    didn’t he actually get overthrown by an ex child-slave?

    true, the ex-slave WAS influenced by the communist hippie, but still…

  30. Ichthyic says

    Are you accusing Panetta of being in the “right wing” and “full freakout mode?

    and your point is?

    this does not make the statement you quoted incorrect.

    It’s as much fearmongering when a demo says it as a rethug.

  31. exdrone says

    D.C. Sessions @16 says:

    Let’s make them happy by buying a few thousand P-40s and Peter Tares.

    How about P-52s instead? If you offered to procure a few thousand P-52s for, um, pilot training let’s say, you’d get some big thumbs-up from USAF pilots.

  32. says

    America’s military has the lowest number of horse-drawn carriages since the birth of the country!! Hardly any mules either!! We’ve got far fewer AK-47s and IEDs than Iran!!

    Oh, lead me gently away to my fainting couch while I clutch away at my pearls.

  33. Michael Heath says

    Ed writes about Mitt Romney’s absurd lies:

    This is pure demagoguery, designed to make the ignorant masses fear something that need not be feared.

    JD the traitor impotently projects his own cowardly thinking on Ed:

    You apparently don’t realize it was a member of the Obama administration — Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta — who said it first.

    Are you accusing Panetta of being in the “right wing” and “full freakout mode?”

    Ed’s blog post on 2011.12.13 soon after Leon Panetta got all shrilly on the country; that post was titled, Panetta’s Ridiculous Fear Mongering.

    JD, just because you continually make inconsistent, dishonest, bigoted, incoherent, and unconstitutional arguments doesn’t mean your detractors do. Your obliviousness and unwillingess to seek the truth in order to defend your bigoted and false reality is truly amazing. It took 10 seconds to google, “Ed Brayton” and “Leon Panetta”, with the linked post being the #1 URL retrieved.

  34. dingojack says

    Kermit – “furtum sem quis non dederit nobis de oleo denario”.

    Concerning jets :-
    In 1910 Henri Coandă filed a patent on a jet propulsion system which used piston-engine exhaust gases to add heat to an otherwise pure air stream compressed by rotating fan blades in a duct“.

    (Has the war against Vietnam only just ended)?

    Although –
    The first operational jet fighter was the Messerschmitt Me 262, made by Germany during late World War II. It was the fastest conventional aircraft of World War II – although the rocket-powered Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet was faster.” – Jet aircraft. History. Wikipedia

    The Me-262’s first flight using their jet engines was on 18 July 1942.

    (Has Saddam Hussein only just been hanged)?

    Dingo

  35. puppygod says

    Speaking of numbers:

    Cost of top-end fighter plane during WWI was around 200$.

    Cost of top-end fighter plane now is around 150,000,000$.

  36. dingojack says

    Puppygod – if these numbers are true*:
    Cost of a top-end fighter in 1918 = ca. $38,300 – $79,600 in 2010.
    Dingo
    —–
    * have you a citation for these figures?

  37. Ichthyic says

    Heath:

    Ed’s blog post on 2011.12.13 soon after Leon Panetta got all shrilly on the country; that post was titled, Panetta’s Ridiculous Fear Mongering.

    JD:

    *sounds of footsteps running away*

  38. puppygod says

    @dingojack

    * have you a citation for these figures?

    It was from an article I read long ago, so I can’t get to it now without two-days long rummaging expedition to my basement. But after quick research online seems that either that article was wrong or I remembered it wrong – either way actual numbers for WWI prices seems to be an order of magnitude higher. The folks at The Aerodrome Forum cite cost for 1917 Sopwith Camel at £1,781 (airframe with engine included). Going by 1917 exchange rate of £1.00 = $4.70 I think that we can agree to round the cost of 1917 top-end fighter plane to $8,000, though actual cost then might be less depending on scale of production run, type of engine, experience of factory crew etc.

    Price for top-end fighter plane now is from F22 wikipedia article.

    So, after correction:

    Cost of top-end fighter plane during WWI was around 8,000$.

    Cost of top-end fighter plane now is around 150,000,000$.

    Personally, I wouldn’t calculate 1917 prices in “todays dollars” for military hardware. Calculations like that might include things like cost of basic goods and services or infletion, but doesn’t compensate for enormous lifestyle and consumption style changes, decrease of production cost or other tech level effects.

  39. dingojack says

    puppygod – there was no kind of accusation implied in my asking for a citation (just so it’s perfectly clear), I was just curious.
    ₤1,781 in 1917 is (as a share of GDP) ₤597,000 in 2008.
    ₤597,000 = $1,110,000 in 2008 terms.
    $1,110,000 in 2008 is $1,120,000 in 2010*.
    This is a measure of the cost relative to the GDP as a whole and thus it’s importance to the country (every ountry has only limited resources, so those projects that are import are funded).
    Thus, in order to cut US military spending by one trillion dollars, all one needs to do is sell 6,768 state-of-the-art jet fighters and buy 2 Sopwith Camels for each jet sold – problem solved and the USAF would have more planes!
    How could the right-wing bean-counters argue with that!
    :) Dingo
    —–
    * If you’re interested, I’ve found this site, Measuring Worth, very helpful from trans-temporal monetary calculations. Play around, it’s fun.

  40. says

    JD falls into the trap that all blind partisans fall into, assuming that if someone criticizes one party or politician, they must excuse the same behavior when done by their opponents. As Michael Heath showed, I slammed Leon Panetta for making the same claim Romney did at the time he made it. Some of us actually think for ourselves and don’t let partisanship change our minds about an issue; if it’s wrong, it’s wrong regardless of which party does it. That’s why I slammed George W. Bush for his unconstitutional policies and Barack Obama for continuing them and, in a couple cases, making them worse. Principle over politics, something JD has no ability to understand.

  41. dingojack says

    Ed = “Principle over politics, something JD has no ability to understand”.
    FIFY
    :) Dingo

  42. slc1 says

    Re dingojack @ #36

    The Messerschmidt was not deployed in combat until late 1944. It was not available in June of 1944 where it might actually have made a difference in preventing allied air superiority over the landing areas in Normandy, and thus seriously jeopardized those landings.

  43. says

    I was talking to a guy the other night who knew a guy who managed to get out to the american side of the battle zone in 1945, ahead of the soviet armies. He was involved at some level in the ME 262 program and he said the fuel was very nasty shit that caused big problems for fuel handlers. I read a book about Adolf Galland some years ago and he mentioned that a shortage of fuel was a problem but he said nothing about the nature of the fuel.

    FWIW department. I know a great way to cut waste in the USAF, pinch off a JD and flush.

  44. says

    Ed said:

    Principle over politics…

    You do actually criticize fairly equally, in many cases. That’s why its surprising to see you go so strongly after one side — and fail to even mention the other, at least at the time.

    To be fair, you did previously agree with someone else who called Panetta’s statements false, etc. That seems to be a principled position.

  45. chernobog says

    Maybe if you “Freethought” Bloggers just jerk each other off a little harder, you’ll achieve your goals for national policy.

    Personally, I’m concerned that the military isn’t big enough yet.

    We need autonomous Panzers and whatnot to complement all the Terminator aircraft that are being tested or even put into operation, like the Fire Scout and Pegasus. I understand that land navigation is a more complex task than naval or aerial navigation but with all the knowledge gleaned over the past decades about complex adaptive systems and a some good old American can-do spirit, I know it can be done, and think of what this guy would be like with a CANNON:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=562yb0wifPo

    More novel incendiaries, too: I thought about this while I was getting rid of some elementary stats texts I have (well past the point of needing them by now) by tossing them on the fireplace. As I shuffled the pages around with the shovel to aerate them, they flamed intensely just before turning to ash and I thought, man, wouldn’t it be cool to reduce a great big crowd of people to a pile of blackened pork rinds in one go?

    Oh and finally, better incapacitating agents. I’m no chemist but I’d give odds there’s an anticholinergic waiting to be found out there that will give its victims psychological scars so deep, the survivors will envy the dead.

    How would you improve the military?

  46. dingojack says

    Demo – Not sure about Me-262 but the Me-163 Komet was powered by Hydrazine (NH2NH2) and glacial Hydrogen Peroxide (HOOH).

    Hydrazine is corrosive, carcinogenic, poisonous, flamable and explosive. Glacial Hydrogen Peroxide is a strong oxididant, corrosive and harmful. Neither are easily handled.

    Dingo

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